Surprising Differences in Life Expectancy

The chart (from Kevin Drum at Mother Jones) shows white men in light colors and white women in darker colors. The numbers are from a Health Affairs study.

The life expectancy of white male high school drop outs fell by three years from 1990 to 2008 and for white female high school drop outs by five years. At the other end of the educational spectrum, people with more than a college degree, life expectancies have risen by five years for men and three years for women.

Drum, BTW, thinks this is due to “privilege.” I think it reflects an intact culture versus a disintegrating culture.

See our previous post on this issue.

Comments (19)

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  1. Tyrus says:

    I tend to agree with John, a disintegrating culture is a far more easily explanable variable than privilege. Don’t believe me? Spend a day with rich teenagers, and poor teenagers. The topics of conversation will be the same.

  2. Ken says:

    Interesting. It is like there are two cultures.

  3. Gabriel Odom says:

    We can’t say that this has nothing to do with privilege. Linda S. Gottfredson, of the University of Delaware, concluded that educational attainment and social status of the parents account for about 30 percent of the intelligence quotients of the children. The children’s IQ values for accounted for about 60 percent of their educational attainment.

    However, when we look at the reverse, we see that 70 percent of our intelligence has nothing to do at all with our parents’ social stratum. While we can conclude that a small portion (about 30 percent) of the life expectancy is based in privilege, the rest is exactly what it looks like – smarter people live longer.

  4. Huda says:

    This further reflects how there are two Americas.However, this is not unique to the U.S., certainly similar trends of disparity between people who are educated vs less-educated exist in other matured economies.

  5. Greg Scandlen says:

    We may be seeing the first signs of a “Hunger Games” society. While the Capitol is booming much of the rest of the nation is still in a depression. While the educated elite prospers the rest of the country lives on hand outs. While housing is soaring in the DC area the rest of the country remains owing more than their homes are worth. Current policies coming out of Washington will only make the disparity worse. No wonder they are so eager for gun control.

  6. Devon Herrick says:

    The relationship between education and health status is not well understood. Most studies show a link between unhealthy lifestyle, the poor and health longevity (i.e. smoking and obesity are more common among the poor than the rich). Public health advocates are prone to blame poor health outcomes on lower rates of health coverage and poor access to health care by those of low educational attainment.

    You can also blame part of the lower life expectancy on poor health literacy (health literacy is sociologist-speak for people who don’t know or seem to care their lifestyle habits are unhealthy). A more controversial component rarely discussed is that low educational attainment and poor health may both have an underlying cause, such as genetics. I’ve also heard suggestions that lower-educated (i.e. poor) people discount future benefits and costs at a higher discount rate. This is sometimes referred to as the social time preference. Someone who values pleasure (for lack of a better term) today more than they value it in the future may be more likely to over-indulge in fatty foods knowing the body mass will accumulate slowly and they won’t have to worry about it until the future. The same person may eschew education because they prefer the money that could be enjoyed today rather than investing time, money and effort into education.

    In any case, I do not believe there is an easy solution; certainly not universal coverage; not public health outreach efforts, not income transfer payments. However, Michael Cannon of CATO has argued that subsidizing education may be a more efficient way to improve health disparities among the rich and poor than universal coverage.

  7. Andrew O says:

    Greg, not sure how serious you are about your prediction, but Washington is far from being an affluent city. Sure, there are affluent pockets in D.C., obviously, but the city of Washington, D.C. is still permeated by poverty and violence — far from an ideal place to live in.
    In regards to the post, I think it is quite obvious how the middle class is thinning itself out while a more polarized stratification of classes is beginning to emerge. This country will not survive in the long-run if this trend continues. Revolutions have been a recurring historical imperative for a reason.

  8. Chris says:

    Why are uneducated people (who tend to be poor) more likely to engage in destructive behaviors, even when those behaviors are more costly? Such as smoking?

    There are two rational explanations.

    One is that there is no cause and effect, but only a cum hoc correlation. An underlying character trait (or deficiency) causes both bad behaviors. The behavior of being unambitious, with no desire to create a better life for yourself (education, training etc) is caused by the same character trait as the behavior of being uncaring about your health, and not having a desire to be healthier.

    The second is that there is a cause and effect. People who have better lives, who are happier, have more to lose by dying, and so try harder to avoid it. Those who aren’t much happy, struggle all the time, are very happy to trade years of life for the temporary nicotine high of a cigarette, because they don’t much care to prolong their relatively unhappy life.

    It probably goes to the same reason why having kids or having pets contributes to longevity. It gives you something to live for.

    I think it’d be incorrect to apply causation to healthcare access. Medicaid is not true healthcare, but middle class people do not have significantly worse insurance than upper glass people. A primary care physician can have an auto worker, a secretary, a lawyer, and a psychiatrist in her practice. So, if it were care access, you’d see gaps between the uninsured and the insured, and people on medicaid and people on private insurance, but then no gap between people of varying education/success levels on private insurance, but that is not the case. There is still a gap, and if someone making $200k has the same insurance as someone making $50k then the gap can’t be explained away by healthcare access.

  9. Greg Scandlen says:

    Andrew, perfectly serious. Seven of the ten richest counties in the U.S. are now suburbs of DC. Perhaps I should have said the Capitol Area.

  10. Chris says:

    Yes, DC has become as wealthy as the San Francisco area.

  11. Greg Scandlen says:

    I think it is a widespread breakdown of our social contract. Yes, dysfuntional people are likely to be poor and poorly educated. But at the same time our society disparages and demeans people who are not like the elite. If you smoke, you are scum. If you are fat you are scum. Bill Gates thinks that EVERYONE should get a college education (who will fix his toilet?). If you believe in God or own a firearm you are a bitter clinger. Now, if you are uninsured you are a lawbreaker. The elite actually despises people who work with their hands. They used to be valued and honored.

  12. H. James Prince says:

    I most certainly do not despise people who work with their hands – they are capable of feats of strength and artistry that I could not dream to equal.
    When my car needs to be fixed, I hire a mechanic. When I need to replace my oven or ceiling fan, I hire an electrician. When I host a party, I hire a caterer – and thereby I indirectly hire a baker, chef, butcher, and many others. They are much better at their roles than I, and they deserve their wages.

    The economic principle of comparative advantage states that society benefits the most when individuals specialize to fit their strengths. Not everyone needs a college education to be successful – after all, my mechanic earns $65 an hour.

  13. Linda Gorman says:

    If it’s all about privilege or assortative marriage, how is it that such a large difference developed in women, who had almost the same life-expectancy in 1990 and one that differed by 10 years in 2008?

    Seems unlikely that privilege, whatever the heck that is, or IQ differences created by assortative marriage would change society rapidly enough to have that large an effect that quickly.

    I think that Charles Murray and Robert Rector have much better answers to this question. They look at unwed pregnancy over time, government substituting for fathers, and consider whether the rise of dependency fosters irresponsibility.

  14. bart says:

    If you extrapolate backwards, then dropouts should have had a longer life expectancy before 1980 or so. I’m afraid I don’t trust the graph. At the very least, I’d like to see the results broken down by cause of death and occupation.

  15. Bob Hertz says:

    Just to add on to what Bart says above, I suspect that pension coverage adds to life expectancy, and the lack of pensions would be connected to riskier health habits.

    A 55 year old janitor has a pretty good internal idea of what his life will be like after age 65. (The only exeptions would be the very few janitors who work for a university or the state, and thereby have a pension)

    If you look at the ‘dual eligibles’ — those elderly who are so poor they get Medicare and Medicaid– you find that time after time they worked as waitresses or janitors or sales clerks.

    The freedom of American employers to pay low wages has a definite social cost in later years.

  16. Linda Gorman says:

    The freedom to pay low wages? Are you saying that everyone would have the same health if everyone got the same wage?

    Do you think perhaps that the drive and self-discipline that makes someone a productive worker might have some overlap with health?

    American employers generally pay what a person is worth in terms of the value of his marginal product. And there wouldn’t be a “social cost” if it hadn’t been socialized.

  17. John says:

    Anecdotal, but I see a difference between my wife and her sister. They had the same parents, grew up in the same house, went to the same public schools. My wife was fit all her life, went to medical school, and is a psychiatrist. Her sister was overweight all her life, is morbidly obese, and works at McDonalds.

  18. Bob Hertz says:

    Linda, I think we are talking past each other.

    My only point was that people who earn low wages have less incentive to stay thin and stop smoking and exercise and all the other good habits that lead to a more pleasant retirement.

    Why? because they believe that they will be broke in retirement.

    In fact, at the low end of the wage scale, some people in their 50’s even hope for bad health so they can get Social Security disability.

    America has a large cheap labor sector in its economy, sometimes called the secondary labor market. It was largest in the South but has a nationwide presence.

    It does not make us evil and it could be that we would be worse off without it.

    But it is not a pleasant place, and it has bad health consequences.

  19. Rozidays says:

    Above changes in Life expectancy charts has been measured in white woman and white man, with regards to the level of their education spectrum. Further, this may also be improved if one adopts a better and healthy lifestyle; also avoid smoking and taking drugs.